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Why a Daytona 500 breakthrough has eluded Brad Keselowski

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Like so many sublimely talented restrictor-plate drivers before him, Brad Keselowski somehow still lacks a Daytona 500 victory.

But the Team Penske driver doesn’t lack for awareness and knowledge of what it will take for a long-awaited breakthrough in the signature race, and he was reminded of the winning key while recently browsing a military handbook.

“(It was) on how to handle different things, all kinds of different game plans, strategies for attacks,” Keselowski told reporters on a national media call last week. “One of the things in the back of the book is, ‘Remember, everything here is for normally trained soldiers going up against another normally trained soldier.’ There’s no way to prepare for a kamikaze, no way to train for somebody that does crazy shit.

“I read that book and I laughed because that’s a lot how the 500 is.  Moves that should work don’t work because for whatever reason that race gets people amped up, crazy, and they do weird things. And so your normal playbook, a lot of times it doesn’t work for the 500. It’s part of the randomness of the race.”

With a series-best six wins at Daytona and Talladega, best on plate tracks among active drivers, Keselowski will enter Sunday’s Daytona 500 trying to snap a 0 for 9 record in the Great American Race – but he takes some solace in the company he keeps.

It took Dale Earnhardt, the winningest driver in Daytona history, 20 tries to win the season opener. Darrell Waltrip won in his 17th attempt. In 17 tries, Tony Stewart never won it despite four victories in the July race.

Besides Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. (0 for 14), Kyle Busch (0 for 13) and Clint Bowyer (0 for 13) are among the active notables still winless in the Daytona 500.

“I think it’s an astute observation, one that’s not lost on me,” Keselowski said of the long waits for several big names such as himself. “I think the moves that should work and normally would work on plate tracks don’t work on the 500 because of kind of the chaos of that race. It’s almost like you need a different playbook for the 500 than you do a normal plate race. I know that’s kind of hard to explain.

“A lot of your success is dictated by others specific to getting crashed out. It makes it very difficult, especially for me and probably drivers like Kyle would probably say the same thing. It makes it very difficult for us because we’ve built a playbook of things we feel good about and we know are the right moves. They’ve worked for us on the other plate tracks, and they don’t work at the 500 because of the randomness of that race. It’s frustrating.”

The 2018 season renewed the urgency of ending that frustration.

With victories at the Brickyard 400 (the first for team owner Roger Penske) and the Southern 500, Keselowski added two “major” wins to his resume, which leaves the Daytona 500 as the glaring omission.

“Last year after winning Darlington and Indianapolis, gosh, the thrill from that, I’m still kind of on a high from that,” he said. “That was almost six months ago.

“But Daytona is, of course, the 500, one major I don’t have. I feel like it’s a race we’ve been competitive at.  We had opportunities to win it.  For a number of reasons, it hasn’t come together, which is sometimes unsettling.  People ask me all the time, ‘What race is the one that got away?’  It’s the 500, has been so far. I want to change that.”

He has been close to winning several times.

In 2014, he finished third after being outdueled by Dale Earnhardt Jr on the last restart. In 2015, a blown engine eliminated his No. 2 Ford from contention with 40 laps remaining (in a race won by his teammate, Joey Logano). Crashes have knocked him out of the past two 500s with strong cars.

“(Survival) has been the hardest part for me,” Keselowski said. “I feel we’ve been good enough to win it multiple times.  We get caught up in somebody else’s wreck or problem. I think you see that a lot.

Besides the luck factor, first things first, you got to be running at the end of that race.  For whatever reason, I think maybe because it’s the first race of the year, maybe because it’s one of the biggest races of the year, I’m not entirely sure, but the Daytona 500 has traditionally been a race of very high attrition. Getting to the end has been very difficult for us.”

NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte, who was Earnhardt’s crew chief for the ’14 win and two prior runner-up finishes, said the pressure compounds the difficulty level for even the best drivers.

“The guy that wins the Daytona 500 is the one that was fortunate enough to make zero mistakes in the last 20 laps,” Letarte said. “Because it builds to a crescendo like no other race in the world. It just builds and builds and builds over three hours. And you know when you leave pit road for the last time, and you can see the energy, all the drivers know it.

“They make very few moves until they’re very calculated. In most races, you can make mistakes in the last few laps of a race and still have a chance to win it. In the Daytona 500, you just can’t.”

And it might actually be tougher for drafting aces such as Keselowski

“I think a lot of people see them as the most threat, so I think they get the least amount of help,” Letarte said. “While you would think they would get the most, I think if you have a chance to hang out any of those big names, that’s who you hang out. Because not all mistakes are a mistake, sometimes you zig, and you just know the guy behind you is going to zig, and he zags. And you’re done.”

“It’s a chess match. It’s months and months and months for one 2.5-mile lap. There is no guarantee you’re ever going to win this race. All you really do is try to be one of the players with 5 miles to go. That race builds like no other. You can just feel it every lap.”

That makes preparing for the race tricky for Keselowski, whose study of military tactics speaks to his meticulously analytical style. While the research can help in some Daytona 500s that unfold as strategical masterpieces, it’s much less effective when the races become crashfests that eliminated many contenders (which was true the past two years).

“Probably the worst thing you can do is be prepared for it because then you have preconceptions of moves that should work, and they don’t because the race is so random,” Keselowski said. “It actually gets you in more trouble. It’s a very, very difficult race to prepare for.”

But he will do so nonetheless, hoping that he can erase the agony of having the current “best plate driver without a Daytona 500” label.

“I’m definitely very frustrated,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.  But on the other side, I’m confident if we keep doing the right things, not to sound too cliché, but trust the process, it will come together.  That means you put the work in, you follow the playbook the best you know how, that we developed, try to make it count.

“I feel like the car is there, the team is there, I’m there.  We’re all ready to win this race.  Hopefully the time is now this year in 2019.”

NASCAR America Presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Kyle Busch

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This week’s episode of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths airs today from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver joins Rutledge Wood and Kyle Petty to discuss this week’s news as well as take fan phone calls.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Chevrolet boss happy with three-race Cup winning streak but wants more

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Even with a three-race Cup winning streak, the head of Chevrolet’s NASCAR program wants more victories as the playoffs near.

Jim Campbell, vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet, made the comments Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

In the last three races, Chevrolet has won with Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona International Speedway) and Kurt Busch (Kentucky Speedway). Until that string, Chevrolet had won only once this year with Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

Last year, Chevrolet had four Cup wins, its fewest victories in Cup since scoring three wins in 1982.

“We have really, really, I think, increased the collaboration (among Chevrolet teams) to another level, and I think we need to because we’ve got to put more wins on the board,” Campbell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The Chevy camp is used to putting 10, 12, 15 wins on the board a year. Right now we’re at four. We expect more of ourselves. I know the teams are looking for more wins and I’ll call it top-five finishes. Talladega was kind of a turbocharger for us to get everyone really working at the next level.”

Chevrolet won at Talladega after an increased effort to have its teams work together throughout the weekend and during the race. Chevrolet made the effort after seeing how successful Toyota and Ford teams were at Daytona and Talladega by working together. Until then, Chevrolet had allowed its teams and drivers to go their own way at those tracks.

“Over the years, Chevy results were pretty doggone strong without a massive work-together effort,” Campbell said during the radio interview. “I think we go back to ’16 and Toyota put together an effort to get some of the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) guys working together and I think in the fall, the Ford camp was doing that. So, it was time, it was time that we just pulled ourselves together and really worked across all of our teams.”

With seven races left until the Cup playoffs begin, Chevrolet has three drivers set for the playoffs via wins: Elliott, Bowman and Busch. Chevrolet also has three competitors who would qualify for the 16-driver playoffs as of today via points with William Byron 12th in the standings, Kyle Larson 13th and Jimmie Johnson 15th.

Johnson’s position is tenuous. He is 10 points ahead of Ford’s Ryan Newman, who holds the first spot outside a playoff position.

“I look at the trajectory,” Campbell said of Chevrolet’s progress. “Are we on the trajectory up or are we flat or are we down? I would say the momentum is going up, but it’s all performance based. We’ve got to put wins on the board, more top 10s.”

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AJ Allmendinger to drive in Watkins Glen Xfinity race for Kaulig Racing

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NASCAR On NBC analyst AJ Allmendinger will climb back behind the wheel for the August 3 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen International.

Allmendinger will pilot the No. 10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing for the second time this season.

Allmendinger is a past winner at Watkins Glen, having won the 2014 Cup race there. He has 10 prior Cup starts at the upstate New York road course, with the win, three top-five and six top-10 finishes, plus one pole.

He also has competed in one Xfinity race at Watkins Glen, starting fourth and finishing second for GMS Racing last year.

It’s an honor to be able to compete for Kaulig Racing at one of my favorite tracks, Watkins Glen International,” Allmendinger said in a team release. “I’ve been fortunate enough to win there in the Cup Series and had a strong run finishing second last season in my only Xfinity start there.

Matt Kaulig, Chris Rice and all of the guys made Daytona so enjoyable and fun, I can’t wait to get to The Glen.”

Allmendinger raced for Kaulig Racing two weeks ago in the Circle K Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway on July 5, leading 33 laps and finishing third before the car was disqualified for failing post-race inspection, leaving Allmendinger with a last-place finish in the 38-car field.

Allmendinger has three additional Xfinity road course races scheduled with Kaulig Racing this season: Mid-Ohio (August 10), Road America (August 24) and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval race (September 28).

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NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch back to No. 1; Kurt Busch to No. 3

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When it comes to this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, all we can say is, “Oh brother” … as in siblings Kyle and Kurt Busch.

Younger brother Kyle once again regained the top spot in this week’s rankings, knocking Joey Logano from the No. 1 perch after Logano held it the last two weeks.

And after not being ranked in the top 10 last week, older bro Kurt rockets up the rankings to No. 3 by virtue of his come-from-behind win last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway.

Also making a big move is Erik Jones, who goes from unranked last week to No. 4 this week. By contrast, six drivers from last week’s rankings dropped out of this week’s tabulations.

Here’s how this week’s rankings shape up:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Tenacious performance at Kentucky puts him back atop the rankings. Last week: 2nd.

2. Joey Logano (36 points): Car wasn’t wide enough to block all those behind him on the final restart. In his last three races on a 1.5-mile speedway, he’s finished seventh (Kentucky), third (Chicagoland) and second (Charlotte). Last week: 1st.

3. Kurt Busch (32 points): What a difference a win makes. But Busch’s ranking isn’t a total surprise. He’s been knocking at the door all season. Had he not pitted at Daytona two weeks ago, he may be riding a two-race win streak now. Last week: Unranked.

4. Erik Jones (23 points): Returns to playoff territory and seems to have momentum for a finishing kick. Third-place finish was his fourth top 10 in the last five races on a 1.5-mile speedway. That includes a third at Kansas and Kentucky and a fourth at Texas. Last week: Unranked.

5. Denny Hamlin (22 points): His pit crew has been called for an uncontrolled tire violation five times this year, tying the series high. That’s unacceptable. Despite the penalty at Kentucky, Hamlin finished fifth. Last week: 7th.

6. Kyle Larson (20 points): Top 10s in three of last four races – including a second (Chicagoland) and fourth (Kentucky) – have solidified his standing for the playoffs. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Newman (16 points): Is in full grind-it-out mode for solid finishes exactly when he needs them. Finished ninth at Kentucky after starting at the rear because his car failed inspection. While he fell out of a playoff spot, he’s only two points away after scoring his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races. Last week: 8th.

8. Cole Custer (9 points): Kentucky victory in the Xfinity Series was his series-high fifth win of the year. Last week: Unranked.

9. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Ends four-race tailspin but still needs to work on amassing stage points. Last week: Unranked.

10. Chris Buescher (5 points): If all the tracks on the circuit were 1.5-milers, he’d likely be ranked higher. All four of his top 10s this year have come at 1.5-mile tracks. He’s been sixth at Charlotte, ninth  at Atlanta and 10th at Kansas and Kentucky. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Christopher Bell (4 points), Martin Truex Jr. (4 points), Tyler Ankrum (3 points).